Solid acting and lively action make Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is better than the previous two films in the franchise, but it’s to overdone to retain the series initial greatness.
On Stranger Tides has many things to recommend it: it’s a fun action-packed romp, has an talented cast that act to the hilt, a soundtrack that brings new life to familiar themes, and the grand visuals that the series is known for. The biggest problem is that it is simply too much. Too many action sequences, too many grand visuals, too much plot stuffed into a lighthearted adventure film.
On Stranger tides has Captain Jack Sparrow(Johnny Depp) shanghaied by former flame Angelica(Penélope Cruz) and her boss Blackbeard (Ian McShane) into searching for Ponce de León and the fountain of youth. Chasing after are Captain Barbossa ((Geoffrey Rush)newly commissioned into the King’s Navy), Master Gibbs ((Kevin McNally) conscripted by Barbossa), and the Spanish fleet (who also want to find the fountain).
The entire cast works hard for this one. Even the young actors playing the lovers Syrena(Astrid Berges-Frisbey)and Philip(Sam Claflin) give their all. Here though, we hit one of the snags in the piece, the aforementioned young love. As hard as these actors are working the characters they are given are entirely two dimensional (Oh, by the way, I made the mistake of watching this one in 3D, but I’ll get back to that.) existing only to provide drama to a single element of the story. Which brings us around to the largest flaw of the film: too many plot-lines. Blackbeard, Angelica, and the Spanish are after the fountain of youth, Barbosa is after Blackbeard, Jack just wants to take Angelica and get away from all of them. To avoid confusion: those are the SIMPLE goals. There’s also: special chalices, mermaid hunting, young love, revenge, eternal salvation, different revenge, a magic sword, long lost family, pointless zombies, and prison escape.
Let’s talk about the prison escape. We open the movie on Jack rescuing Gibbs from prison, and being summarily captured himself; then escaping again. There are parts in this sequence that had the potential to be some of the best in the entire series. Rather than simply following Jacks “best worst pirate” shenanigans we are treated to a sequence where Jack carefully, and unnoticed by those watching him arranges a room to facilitate his escape. It’s a fantastic bit, and is more reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes than the Captain Jack we know. It’s just the sort of thing to push the series in a positive direction, more reminiscent of Holmes and Bond, but it’s thrown away with a bit of deus ex machina. Time and again through the story are these glimpses that perhaps Jack is more than just a fast talker and a practiced swordsman, but they are quickly discarded in favor of more grand setpieces.
Which is another problem with the film: there are actually too many action sequences. I imagine that every time someone told Jerry Bruckheimer about a scene he said, “That sounds great, what if it were also…” (on fire? racing down a busy street? exploding?) I’m not saying I’m in favor of an action adventure in the style of Sophia Coppola, but an insufficient balance can make the action feel repetitive.
Also on the subject of things being grand: wherever they are looking for the fountain of youth it’s not where de León went. I’m sure there are parts of Florida with mountainous terrain and stunning high vistas, oh wait, no there aren’t.
Now on to the subject of 3D. I chose to see the 3D version of the film because the showtime fit better with my schedule than the 2D time. This was a big mistake on my part. One of the flaws I find in 3D movies is that dark scenes tend to be murky and hard to see. It’s no good then that several of the major action sequences (out of the admittedly large number of action sequences) take place by torchlight. These night scenes develop a sort of Greengras-esque freneticism because half the time you can’t tell what’s going on. The action sequences in the light were largely well done and entertaining (aside from the fact that there were just too many), and I’d honestly be willing to give the movie another shot in 2D at some point, but even clear visuals and well done action don’t fix the larger flaws.
There are several other good things in the film. The Hans Zimmer score is as solid as ever, but with a twist of proverbial lime. For this one Zimmer added a Spanish guitar flare, with the help of guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, to his familiar PotC themes. The guitars give the score a different flavor, while maintaining the swashbuckling atmosphere. Also, despite my earlier complaint, the sweeping island vistas, crowded cities, and swaying ships all look great. There’s no lack of consideration for set design, or for costumes; which never lack for interesting detail. Perhaps what works in the design department is what overcomes the rest of the film there’s no sense of editing, no feeling that anyone ever said, “Do we really need that to tell the story?” Healthy editing could have put the series back on top; instead of allowing it to be solidly average.